On Beards, Biology, and Being a Real American (Cross-Post from LabSpaces)
I was on a little bit of a post-vacation downer this past week. Only, I didn’t actually go anywhere. Instead, the SXSW music (and arts and interactive and style) festival came to me, right at home in Austin, TX. It was a week of uplifting musical and artistic expression emanating from every street corner and bar in town, and much of could even be classified as good! As I look back on the last week, two things jump out at me: 1) Tall cans of cheap, hipster beer and 2) BEARDS.
Seriously, beards on fans, beards on drummers, beards on guitarists, beards on DJs . . . beards everywhere. There was even a beatboxer named Beardyman. You show me a band without at least one beard and I will show you a liar. Incidentally, one of the best was sported by my good friend Kent from the band Letting Up Despite Great Faults:
I’ve never been able to grow a beard, thanks to my fair-haired Northern European ancestry. Scientifically speaking, it really just means that my dermal papillae don’t produce enough 5-alpha-reductase, which isn’t my fault. Instead, I produce what could best be replicated by gluing patches of thin, patchy stubble to your face with the lights turned off.
Naturally, since so many cool dudes in bands sport beards, I have always been a little bit jealous. Or maybe until now. I recently stumbled upon an Ig Nobel-winning work of microbiology from back in 1967, when men were men and being able to grow a beard was a prerequisite for owning property in 13 states*.
Although I am far from the first to critique this research, I could not overlook the obvious symbolism of finding so many musical beards and this paper in the same week. We must again ask: Does a bearded scientist put his friends, family and coworkers in danger solely by possessing full and lush chin hair? Is a face-blanket a potential carrier of infectious microorganisms from bench to bedside? A few isolated cases of Q fever had then been confirmed as a result of handling the laundry of exposed laboratory workers, so a resurgence of beards in biology was certainly worthy of scrutiny at the time. The authors made their hypothesis very clear:
“After many years of absence from the laboratory scene, beards are now being worn by some persons working with pathogenic microorganisms . . . [I]t has been our policy that beards are undesirable because they may constitute a risk to close associates.”
I think the true beauty of this research lies in their two-pronged approach to the question.
In the first series of experiments, the authors tested whether certain exposures and beard-washing methods could influence the persistence of bacteria in the hirsute neck-jungles of four volunteers (two of whom were also authors). These men sported oddly-age-specific 73-day-old beards and were sprayed with two different types of bacteria: Serratia marcescens and Bacillus subtilus var. niger. Two intervals of beard-washing analysis were chosen for the study. Notably, the short interval was designed to simulate “. . . the time necessary for a man to complete a laboratory operation in a zealous attempt to avoid loss of an experimental series despite a known accidental contamination of his beard,” because only the truly zealous among us would jeopardize the safety of our friends and facial hair to complete an experiment. The subjects were then subjected to various beard-washing techniques, which could obviously only be adequately described via the following figure:
Post-lavage, various collection methods were employed to analyze the persistence of microorganisms on washed and unwashed beards, as demonstrated by these captured Taliban fighters:
Analysis of the reported bacterial colony counts leaves no doubt that bacteria survive quite diligently on a washed beard when compared to naked skin. It is worth noting, however, that one would effectively need to dip one’s beard in a bacterial culture to obtain the exposures used in the study. You have been thusly warned.
Bacteria are not the only dangerous microorganisms common to the modern laboratory. In order to study the ability of infectious virus particles to be transmitted by beard, the team employed a set of methods that can only be described as groundbreaking . . . or insane. It turns out that in 1967 you could purchase natural hair beards from Piscataway, NJ (I must wonder, who was donating these?). One of these beards was placed upon the face of a mannequin and summarily doused with Newcastle disease virus prepared at high titer. The scientists then stroked live baby chickens across the beard to assess viral transmission. This resulted in perhaps the greatest photograph ever included in a scientific manuscript:
Unsurprisingly, when a live chicken is rubbed across an unwashed beard containing a lethal titer of avian viral particles, then ground up in a blender and injected into fertilized eggs, the rates of survival are not good. Beard-wearing scientists must take care to ensure that they do not repeat this extremely precise and odd sequence of events, lest they ruin dozens of perfectly good eggs. The authors came to the conclusion that “a bearded man is a more dangerous carrier than a clean-shaven man because the beard is more resistant to cleansing”. However, I have been unable to come up with a realistic laboratory scenario that could result in a high titer of deadly virus being sprayed directly on a man’s beard without either killing him or destroying the lab, so I am forced to come to a different conclusion than the authors.
In 1967, the United States was undergoing what could be described as “extreme cultural paradigm shifts”. This was evident in more-than-minor historical events such as the Civil Rights Movement, Free Love, and Vietnam War protests. It is not completely unrealistic that a health and safety office stationed at the Fort Detrick Army base would hold Bearded Americans of the Counterculture in low esteem. It is common knowledge that the more liberal and progressive elements of American culture at the time were pretty high on beards.
So maybe there was a cultural undercurrent to this study, intentional or not. It would serve the purposes of “The Man” quite well to have some scientific basis to reject the beard and its associated underpinnings. Then again, we must consider the off chance these scientists were well aware of the tumultuous stigma of the beard in the U.S., circa 1967. One could imagine this study as a well-crafted jab at the white, male establishment of government-funded institutional science by a small group of intelligent rabble-rousers. It would certainly be an effective poke, and one that I think still resonates today.
Have today’s tables been turned? Scientists are now so often perceived as the ones acting in opposition to American values. There’s an interesting double standard there, when you think about it. As I observed last week, beards are considered pretty damn cool when it comes to musicians, and people love musicians. Perhaps we can all overlook the inherent infectious disease risks of science beards as claimed by Barbieto et al. and, by increasing their frequency, increase the acceptance of scientists in today’s society.
Whatever the case, I still can’t grow one. At least I have a full head of hair to fall back on. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some 5-alpha-reductase to order from a south Asian online pharmacy.
*Not actually true.
This post was originally featured as a guest blog on LabSpaces on March 28, 2011. Special thanks to them for hosting me!